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A la Carte Programming—A Reality for TV Watchers?

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Your fight for a lower cable bill has gained an unlikely champion: Former presidential candidate John McCain has introduced a bill to require cable providers to allow a la carte programming—that is, the ability for you to pick and choose which channels you pay for.

During a May 14 Senate panel, McCain cited ESPN as one of the main offenders when it came to charging cable subscribers for unused channels. The sports network makes about $5.54 from every subscriber whether they watch the channel or not. McCain argues that consumers should be able to pick only the channels they watch and not pay for the ones they do not watch.

“I believe the consumers are at a tipping point when it comes to their monthly pay-TV bill,” McCain said. “In my view, the a la carte option is a non-regulatory and consumer-friendly way to provide consumers with the freedom to lower their bills and pay only for what they watch.”

The idea of creating your own TV package sounds exciting, but it might not be in your best interest. If, hypothetically, each channel you choose costs $5 a month, you would get 11 channels for $55 per month—the average monthly cable bill in the U.S. A cable package at around the same price gives you hundreds of channels. There’s also the fact that certain niche channels survive because they are subsidized by more popular channels. A move to a la carte programming could mean these channels stop operating.

Premium channels such as HBO cost around $15 a month, so how many channels would offer themselves at $5 a month or less? And then there’s the possibility that networks would spread their popular programming across multiple channels so consumers would still need to subscribe to the suite to get all of their favorite shows.

Consumer Reports notes that allowing consumers to purchase channels individually would open a whole new world of choice for TV watchers. Gone would be the days of channel surfing past programming that you never watch or purchasing huge TV packages just to get one or two channels that you really love. If you were able to purchase shows individually, it would significantly enhance your control as a consumer and your experience as a viewer.

Cable bills have risen about 6.1 percent annually since 2006, so consumers are looking for ways to keep those costs down. Whether it’s through a la carte choices, lowering the costs of subscriptions in general or even turning to Internet-based TV, one thing is clear: The world of TV is changing and programming has to change too.

Find Jae Curtis on Google+.

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